The FDR Drive is a 9.44-mile freeway-standard parkway that runs along the East River and is one of the most important routes in New York City. It starts north of the Battery Park Underpass located at South and Broad Streets and extends all the way uptown to the 125th street interchange. Thus, it isn’t surprising that such a significant and extensive parkway also has some interesting facts and history. When the FDR Drive was first conceptualized it was known as the “East River Drive.” After it was built, the parkway was renamed for former president Franklin Delano Roosevelt following his death in April 1945. Here are the top 10 secrets of the FDR Drive, including red lights on dead end streets, 27 seal statues in East River Park and an abandoned art installation under the Queensboro Bridge.
10. The FDR Drive Was Built Using World War II Material
New York City’s architectural history is as colorful and varied as its residents, and some of the ground that we stand, or drive on are from far off places. During World War II, the city of Bristol, England underwent an attack by the Luftwaffe, which left a large amount of the city in ruin. Over 85,000 buildings in the city were destroyed. Bristol was a major port for American supply ships during this time.
In the book Rubble: Unearthing the History of Demolition by Jeff Byles, there were no supplies to load onto the ships after the attack, so the the masonry and rubble from the destroyed town was used as ballast. When the ships arrived in New York, the rubble was dumped along the East River from 23rd Street to 34th Street, and would later serve as the foundation for portions of the FDR Drive. There is a plaque in Bristol commemorating the shared moment in history between the Americans and the British.
9. Robert Moses Created the Plans for the FDR Drive
Image from Library of Congress/C.M. Stieglitz
Robert Moses was responsible for a great deal of New York City’s and New York State’s urban development in the first half of the 20th century. Though Moses’ contributions are still in use today, he was a controversial and often polarizing individual during his lifetime. Some of his projects include the Cross-Bronx Expressway, the Henry Hudson Bridge and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. The FDR Drive was another of Moses’ public projects that he began planning in the 1920s. Moses’ vision for the East River Drive, as it was originally known, included six 12-foot wide lanes, long viaducts for grade separation and green spaces between the parkway and the East River. The original construction of the FDR Drive began in 1934 and was finished in 1955. Then, from 1955 to 1966, the parkway underwent reconstruction.
8. The FDR Drive Has One of the Smallest Parks in New York City
We have previously written about a number of small parks in New York City that measure 0.04 acres or less, including Lafayette Square, Samuel Marx Triangle and Charlton Plaza. Another one of these pocket-sized parks is on the FDR Drive on the corner of FDR and 93rd Street. The no-name park is listed on New York City Parks Department website with a size of 0.03 acres but has no description. The park’s defining characteristic is an unobtrusive stone marker that reads “East River Drive Triborough Bridge Approach,” an homage to its original name.
7. Exit 6 on the FDR Drive Has Been Closed Since September 11
Following September 11, exit 6 on the FDR Drive has born a “closed” sign, and for over ten years, drivers have wondered whether the exit would be reopened. The exit was closed “due to security reasons,” but another reason is that the exit is located near a Con Edison substation that controls much of lower Manhattan’s electricity. According to an article from NBC, the Department of Transportation said that they were planning to “possibly remove the signs” in 2013. According to Con Edison, there are no plans to reopen the exit.
6. There is a Red Light on a Dead End in the FDR Drive
On a dead end along the FDR Drive, one will stumble across something strange: a red light. We previously explored the dead-end red lights that seem odd in places where there is no active traffic. The stop lights supplement dead-end signs and prevent cars from colliding into the end of a road. These types of lights are kept on all day and are strategically placed in streets that end above grade, or are on a cliff or by a riverside like the East River.
5. The FDR Drive Was Once Home to the Largest Green Space on the Lower East Side
FDR Drive from Brooklyn
In the 1930s, Robert Moses began planning a public park to be built on the East River waterfront on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in tandem with the FDR Drive. At the time it was built, Moses envisioned a green space for the Lower East Side, which was “sorely in need of a parkland.” The East River Park opened in July of 1939 and was the largest open green space in the Lower East Side at the time. But as the FDR Drive was built, portions of the original park were eliminated, including a section between Montgomery and Jackson Streets. In 2001, East River Park was officially renamed the John V. Lindsay East River Park after New York’s 103rd mayor.
4. There is an Abandoned Art Installation on the FDR Drive
Photo from Alice Aycock
Under the Queensboro Bridge and atop a defunct waste transfer station is a unique looking sculpture that resembles a wild rollercoaster ride. The metal behemoth is known as the East River Roundabout, and was a commissioned project created by artist Alice Aycock, unveiled in 1994. The original purpose of Aycock’s project was to transform the abandoned waste transfer station into a public plaza. Carol Rifkind, the president of the East River Waterfront Conservancy, wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times asking for a $125,000 endowment so the work could be maintained forever. Though it is unlikely that the money was granted to care for the installation, it is currently under the care of the Municipal Art Society’s Adopt-A-Monument Program.
3. Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani Helped Save a Car Crash Victim on the FDR Drive
Photo via Wikimedia Commons/1DmkIIN
According to stories from the The Daily Mail and the New York Daily News, former mayor Rudy Giuliani helped to save a car crash victim on the FDR Drive. In October 2015, Giuliani was traveling on the FDR Drive from JFK Airport when he saw an SUV overturned on the parkway. According to The Daily Mail, the former mayor stopped on the side of the road to call 911 and directed traffic on the FDR Drive while waiting for the ambulance to arrive.
2. Plans Were Approved for a New Rockefeller University Building on the FDR Drive
In May 2014, the New York City Council approved plans for Rockefeller University to acquire a new laboratory building using air rights that the university owns. The school proposed a two-story, 160,000 square foot building to be built from 64th and 65th Streets to 68th Street. Other parts of the lab project include $8 million repairs to the East River Esplanade adjacent to the Rockefeller University campus and $1 million endowment to maintain the esplanade in perpetuity. The plans for the building awaited final approval by the mayor, but there has been no recent news or developments on the laboratory.
1. There are 27 Seal Sculptures in East River Park on the FDR Drive
There are a number of quirky and fun animal sculptures within New York City parks and public spaces, including the Group of Bears statue in Central Park and an owl statue on the Grand Concourse. Another example of animal-inspired public art is the 27 seal sculptures in East River Park on Grand Street. The sculptures were designed by Gerry Augustine Lynas, a New York-based artist who specializes in sculptures made of sand and snow. In 1980, Lynas created a snow sculpture for the athlete’s village during the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York. The East River Park seals were installed in the park in 2001 and double as sprinklers in the warmer months.
Next, read about 10 Parks and Playgrounds to Discover Along NYC’s East River Drive, The 10 Smallest Parks in Manhattan and The Parts of NYC Moved from the United Kingdom, Now Part of City’s Land & Architecture. Keep up with the author @jen_bagcal.